Arbor Patrol

Zinfandel, 6522 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 277-7887. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

The poets and sages have always been willing to testify to the charms of wine. "In wine there is truth," asserted Pliny the Elder. "From wine what sudden friendship springs!" noted John Gay. And Lord Byron certainly had his priorities in order when he wrote, "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/Sermons and soda-water the day after."

During the past few years, as our town has grown in size and sophistication, Valley restaurants have gradually started to realize that there's more to wine than truth, friendship and good cheer. There's also profit.

Just five short years ago, Phoenix wine lovers were more or less limited to gourmet palaces like Christopher's, Mary Elaine's, Vincent's or Different Pointe of View if they wanted to get their hands on a decent wine list.

These days, however, local spots have come a long way from the "house red" and "house white" that once sufficed. In 1996, we're no longer surprised to see a well-fashioned wine list that offers several varieties of reds and whites, spanning several vintages. Moreover, the wines are as likely to come from Chile, South Africa and Australia as they are from France, Italy and California. And to encourage reluctant diners to drink up, proprietors have done a good job stocking their cellars with a number of budget-priced bottles that won't threaten anyone's credit-card limits.

Two restaurants have taken the wine concept one step further. Both Zinfandel and Anna's Cafe have retail wine outlets attached to their establishments. Diners can wander through the storerooms and check out the inventory. And once they've chosen a bottle to accompany their meal, they won't find it priced at the usual 100 percent restaurant markup. Instead, they'll pay just a few bucks more than retail for the luxury of having it uncorked and poured by a server.

It didn't take long to figure out that Zinfandel and Anna's Cafe could please the wine lover in me. But that's not enough. I want some good food, too. After all, even the Bible tells us that "a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry." Fortunately, both places generally deliver some of the merriment I crave.

Tucked away in the far corner of a north central Phoenix minimall, Zinfandel is a casually upscale neighborhood spot that should flourish in this neighborhood. Dark wood paneling gives the place a somewhat clubby look. You can also look in on the helter-skelter activity taking place in the open kitchen. But there's nothing very memorable about the setting.

The vaguely Southwestern-themed food, however, is another story. In particular, the superb entrees make Zinfandel worth driving to even if you don't live in the neighborhood.

But the high quality of the main dishes also makes the restaurant's shortcomings that much more glaring. Take the breadbasket, on one visit a pile of embarrassingly mushy white bread. With all the wonderful bakeries in town, surely Zinfandel can do better than this.

The appetizer list is small and dull. I suppose some folks may come here panting for nachos, but not me. Four snoozy, bacon-wrapped shrimp for nine bucks are no bargain. Too bad the excellent roasted red pepper sauce and jalapeno hollandaise they came with haven't been teamed with something a little more imaginative. The same two sauces also perk up the it's-on-every-menu-in-town Southwestern skewers--grilled beef, shrimp, sausage, mushrooms and pepper strung out on a stick. And the baked Brie paired with melon and berries is a heavy way to launch into a meal, especially if fewer than four people are sharing it.

The entrees, however, bring Zinfandel to life. Pork tenderloin is nothing short of scrumptious, tender medallions gilded with a lip-smacking red wine sauce. Rack of lamb, the most expensive main dish at $19.95, is another carnivore's delight. You get six gorgeously moist, glazed, mesquite-grilled chops, boosted by a ravishing zinfandel sauce. I appreciated the excellent sides, too--grilled corn sheared off the cob, and crisp, oily roasted potatoes.

Chicken Chimayo is also worth clucking over. It's a well-made copy of Richardson's specialty, rolled chicken breast stuffed with spinach, red pepper, shiitake mushrooms and Asiago cheese. A fragrant shallot risotto furnishes nifty accompaniment.

And if one evening's ahi tuna special is any indication, the kitchen knows how to handle fish. This quality slab arrived perfectly cooked to medium-rare specifications, smoothed with an orange-pineapple salsa that didn't get in the way.

I figured the pasta dishes would be an afterthought. But the delightfully spicy angel-hair pasta, vigorously doused with olive oil, lemon and butter, and topped with artichokes and mushrooms, proved me wrong.

The only less-than-stellar entree performer? It's the eight-ounce beef filet, a topnotch piece of animal protein that doesn't reach full potential if you choose to pair it with the watery blue cheese sauce.

Priced at only six bucks more than retail, wine can make the entrees soar even higher. As you might expect, there's an especially good selection of California zinfandels (try the Ravenswood, 1994, $21).

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